This month, I have returned to an issue that has been a favorite here: reinvestment in the coffeelands. Last week, I summarized the results of the SCAA survey on industry giving at origin and mentioned two of the SCAA’s conclusions: most companies “lack a structured approach to giving” and don’t necessarily get all the information they would like about the impacts of their philanthropy.
In today’s post — my 200th since the CRS Coffeelands Blog opened for business back in November 2009 — I look at Green Mountain’s Reporting Collaborative, an approach to reinvestment that is nothing if not structured, and designed to generate precisely the kind of information on impact that seems to be lacking elsewhere in the industry.
I have written here before about Green Mountain and the pioneering research that pushed food security to the top of the company’s reinvestment agenda. That measure alone — household-level research on hunger underwritten by a coffee company — was a story in itself. But how the company incorporated its new food-security thrust into a highly structured framework for investment, project monitoring, and impact evaluation is another story altogether.
When I first met Green Mountain’s director of overseas investment Rick Peyser in 2007, the company was just beginning the phenomenal run of growth that has made it the world’s leading buyer of Fair Trade Certified Coffee and the biggest corporate donor in the coffeelands by a country mile. At the time, the company was using the Millennium Development Goals as the yardstick by which it measured the impacts of its reinvestment in coffee communities. It seemed to me that it was not, perhaps, the most practical approach. MDG impact indicators include a broad range of targets for every major dimension of human development, and they are meant to measure change at the macro level. They may work for the UN, but they may not be the best tool for measuring the impacts of community-level reinvestment.
I felt also that Green Mountain wasn’t necessarily doing itself any favors strategically by linking its social reinvestment in the coffeelands to the MDGs. The breadth of the MDGs makes it hard to rule out any investment vaguely connected to human welfare. Again, this approach may suit the UN, whose mandate is comprehensive in nature and global in scope. It may be less helpful, however, for a single corporate donor with limited resources and hard choices to make about what to fund, where, and why.
In the intervening years, Green Mountain has adopted a more disciplined approach to reinvestment even as it has sustained enormous growth, and has created a highly structured reporting system that generates consistent, uniform information on impact across countries and projects.
Green Mountain has clearly identified four priority areas for reinvestment — food security, grassroots financial services, health and education. An inter-departmental unit inlcuding green coffee buyers, CSR professionals, marketers, and others evaluate applications in each of these sectors against established criteria to make investment decisions.
To monitor the impact of these investments, the company convened the Reporting Collaborative — an innovative space for inter-agency cooperation in which GMCR’s grantees participate in the development, testing and validation of the performance indicators that will be used to evaluate their own performance, with guidance from academics who specialize in smallholder coffee. The result of the first year of the Reporting Collaborative’s effort is a comprenhensive monitoring and evaluation system for GMCR-funded projects in the coffeelands.
The company’s M&E guide is a serious affair — it comes in at 79 pages — that may be a model for other industry actors seeking more structure in their own philanthropic operations. It creates unform standards for what information GMCR grantees gather and how. And it includes a narrow set of required quantitative and qualitative indicators for all projects, as well as sector-specific indicators for each of the areas in which the company invests. This makes it possible for the company to monitor the performance and evaluate the impact of specific projects, and roll-up reports from around the world to see the aggregate impacts of its investment in each sector.
Like so many innovations in sustainability, the Reporting Collaborative is an evolving and iterative process. But it appears to be taking GMCR where few companies have gone before, and responding directly to the lack of structure and transparency that the SCAA thinks are vexing reinvestment efforts industry-wide.